Box Office: Korea on the Cusp

Fresh talent and diverse pics draw big B.O. as local indies make inroads

New faces behind the films and fresh stories on the screen have reinvigorated the Korean film business. In the first nine months of 2013, two local films have entered the all-time top 10, market share for local titles has hovered around the 60% mark, and Hollywood has seemed powerless to respond to a succession of well-made and diverse local titles.

Making the picture even rosier for Korean cinema, the B.O. boom has been accelerated by new filmmakers, movies (mostly) made on reasonable budgets — up to $4 million in some cases — and the growing influence of five-year-old distributor Next Entertainment World.

The industry’s recovery from the slump of 2007-08 feels like it’s been a long time coming.

The year kicked o with an unexpected hit, “Miracle in Cell No. 7.” Handled by NEW, which was launched by former Showbox employees, the film is by far the biggest of 2013, and with 12.8 million admissions and $84 million, it’s one of the biggest Korean titles of all time.

Melodrama “Miracle” joins other local successes that have been edgier and darker; indeed, Korean screens have seen more thrillers and horror, and a markedly lower emphasis on romance and comedies than in the recent past.

“The films are better, they are fresher, they have better ideas,” says producer Jonathan Kim. “The scene is vibrant because there are many people having a chance to make big movies in Korea these days.”

It’s notable that many of this year’s hits came from first-time directors.

Two of the biggest were action thriller “The Terror Live,” which collected $36 million at the box office, and started as a pitch at the Network of Asian Fantastic Films genre film project market in 2010 before being picked up by giant local distrib Lotte Entertainment; and thriller “Hide and Seek,” which was made by Huh Jung, a director with four shorts to his credit, and distribbed by NEW. The latter pic has made $36 millon so far.

Finding newcomers and backing have been deliberate strategies by NEW, which this year ranks as the country’s No. 2 distributor, behind traditional market leader CJ, and ahead of the combined might of Disney and Sony.

“NEW has contributed a lot,” says Suh Young-joo, head of sales agency Finecut, and who has represented many NEW titles overseas. “Eighty percent of their fi lms are by fi rst-time directors. They are also good at script analysis. They want to work with budgets of $3 million-$4 million, even for new directors.”

The success of NEW has been significant in another way too. For many years Korean cinema has been dogged by worries that two or three vertically integrated groups — CJ, Lotte and Megabox — backed by even larger chaebols (Korean-style conglomerates) have dominated the exhibition and distribution scenes.

But NEW has managed to crack the so-called monopoly, with three films so far in the Korean top 10.

“We have strong distribution companies with enormous cinema chains behind them. But this year NEW has been very successful without a cinema chain,” says Nam Dong-chul, Korean film programmer for the Busan festival. Nam notes that independent producers and big distrib/exhib companies are working together and achieving B.O. success.

Nevertheless, some are still wary of the big players.

“I’m worried by the number of screens available to arthouse and independent directors,” says Lee Tae-hun of Opus Pictures, one of the producers of “Snowpiercer,” which was distributed by CJ and has racked up some $62 million in grosses. “The independents are not challenging the hierarchy. Rather the Korean studios are choosing to cooperate with the slaves. Just like Hollywood, they are always looking for new blood. They are not adopting the indie spirit, they are just buying it. I’m worried by that too.”

And the Korean films are thrilling local auds only.

“The big overseas markets have shrunk. The Japanese market is again down after the 2010 natural disaster,” says Finecut’s Suh.

Perhaps the burgeoning indie scene will make monopolies a thing of the past and boost global interest again.

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